Why I Can’t Find My Pants in Swedish (Hint: It’s the Pandemic)

Back when I was still teaching creative writing at Michigan State University, a senior colleague at Michigan State University’s English Department asked if I wanted to join him to start a summer abroad program in Sweden.  I didn’t hesitate.  I’d been watching Swedish movies and reading Swedish mysteries for years. 

The program was going to be housed at historic Lund University in the south of that country not far from Copenhagen, and I plunged into reading everything I could about the region, its culture, history, sites, and food.  More than that, I began studying Swedish, which would be my third foreign language after French and German. 

I fell in love with both the sound and sense of it.  Swedish has multiple stresses in it which makes it more musical than English and German; the grammar isn’t nearly as complicated as German; the spelling is much simpler.  Best of all for a beginner, in the present tense the verb form is identical in each position.  You can do a lot with just the present tense.

I immersed myself in all things Swedish and learned about Fika, their afternoon coffee break with something like a cinnamon bun, and better still, their concept of lagom: being contented with having just enough, which is so antithetical to the American hunger for more, more, more. 

I studied Swedish daily via Pimsleur or Babbel or Duolingo–to the point where a friend with Swedish relatives said my accent was really good.  “You sound like my uncle!”

Though I’d be teaching in English, and Sweden ranks very high in Europe for English language fluency, I wanted to be able to talk to Swedes when I traveled around the country in their own language.  I was busy, busy, busy.

On the academic front, I planned a creative writing course and a course in Swedish crime novels in translation.  We were fired up. But my colleague and I hit a massive roadblock.  Lund University insisted on having one of their professors do guest lectures at $1500 an hour and assigning us a student assistant for several thousand more.  Our budget couldn’t handle those expenses and they wouldn’t negotiate.   End of a dream.

When the pandemic hit and Michigan went into lock down, I found myself at loose ends and bored, since I wasn’t working on a book.  I looked around for ways to structure my time when everything seemed so uncertain, and Swedish seemed a natural choice.  Since March, I’ve been re-experiencing the joys and challenges of a language with some similarities to German but oh-so-many differences.  Like the articles tacked onto the ends of the nouns: Hus is Swedish for house, and the house is huset.

After breakfast very morning, I have a second cup of coffee and do 10-15 minutes of Swedish On Duoling and feel as calm as if I’m meditating.

When all this is over, I would still like to travel to the south of Sweden, which is beautiful and close to Copenhagen, and see the gorgeous old college town of Lund.  It’s apparently small enough to walk or bike across in less than half an hours. Lund is also close to where the Wallander mystery series was filmed as well as the larger cities of Gothenberg and Malmo. I’ve kept all my travel guides in the hope that it comes to pass.

My favorite Duolingo Swedish sentence is in the title of this blog: Jag kan inte hittar mina byxor.  I would love to have the occasion to use it there to see how people react.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres, most recently State University of Murder

 

Twitter photo credit: Jerker Andersson/imagebank.sweden.se

 

Michigan Book Awards Discriminate Against LGBT Books

Every year since 2004 the Library of Michigan has publicized as many as 20 Notable Michigan books “reflective of Michigan’s diverse ethnic, historical, literary, and cultural experience.”

notable bookBut that diversity seems to have a huge gap. No book with major LGBT content has ever been among the books annually celebrated and publicized statewide. That fact was confirmed to me by one of the judges, who had no explanation.

The 2016 Library of Michigan press vaunts the 2015 awards this way:

“The MNB selections clearly demonstrate the vast amount of talent found in writers focusing on Michigan and the Great Lakes region,” State Librarian Randy Riley said. “The list continues to offer something for everyone – fiction, short story collections, history, children’s books, politics, poetry and memoirs.”

great lakes regionThe awards program actually stretches all the way back to 1991 under different names. It sponsors statewide author tours for the winning authors, so it’s a big deal. The Detroit Free Press describes what it mean to be a winner:

While no cash award comes with making the list, there is a real economic reward for writers and publishers in terms of increased sales. Emily Nowak, marketing and sales manager at Wayne State University Press, said appearing on the list can lift sales by several hundred copies. For regional titles with small press runs of between 1,000 and 3,000 copies, that’s a significant boost and could push a title into a second printing. Many Michigan libraries often buy multiple copies of books that appear on the list.

And then of course there’s the free publicity, which has no valuation, and the invitations to speak that an award generates, and the prestige.

But evidently since 1991 there hasn’t been a single book with major LGBT content published by a Michigan press or written by a Michigan author living here or elsewhere worthy of recognition.

Think about it: No notable LGBT books by talented queer Michigan authors in almost twenty-five years the judges of this program thought deserved being honored. Not one. The Library of Michigan’s web site claims that the awards “help build a culture of reading here in Michigan.” Perhaps so, but the culture being built is limited in its diversity.

Before the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Rolling Stone rated Michigan as one of the five worst states in the country for gay rights because of hate crimes, but there are other forms of oppression, including forced invisibility.

Isn’t it well past time that the sponsors and judges of the Michigan Notable Books stepped into the 21st century, out of the darkness and into the light?  What are they afraid of?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.